It’s an unfortunately familiar scene in my classroom – one of my students raising their hand, fist balled, ready to land a punch in a dispute over a cup of crayons or the last available tricycle. When you’re caught in a classroom that bounces back and forth between two distinct languages and it’s your first time interacting with 21 other children who are the same age, have the same needs, and want the same toys it can be understandably difficult to remember to ‘use your words’ each and every time that someone makes you upset. It’s part of why this year for me has become so much more about socioemotional development as opposed to rote memorization of letter sounds or numbers; my kids can’t be functioning students if they don’t have basic impulse control. Kindergarten preparedness has become a lot more about developing each unique person and his or her way of thinking about the world around them than what I initially felt should be a tightly run, smoothly packaged Hooked on Phonics environment.
So that being said, when J went to hit a classmate I quickly intervened by placing my hand over his and reaffirming, “We use our hands to help, not hit. Please use your words if there is a problem.” Usually that little pause in the process is enough to bring a student back to the classroom and, if nothing else, avoid a confrontation. But in this instance, something in J was relentless. He is my tallest boy and largest student (keeping in mind that everyone is five-years-old or younger) but I wasn’t expecting him to push me back and start pounding into the arm, shoulder, and stomach of the girl. She immediately screamed and began to back away, but at this point J had seemingly lost all control and I had lost my collected demeanor. In my head I knew that we were always to frame instructions in a positive way (i.e. “Walk, please!” instead of “Don’t run!”) because developmentally telling a preschooler not to do something always ends up in them curiously trying to determine why you prohibited it in the first place.
But in this instance, I was trying to regain my balance and stave off the barrage of punches J was throwing: “NO! NO! Stop, J, stop please! Stop we can’t hit! J, please stop!” I pulled him from the now-wailing classmate and attempted to carry him to the benches on our playground where I always try to talk sense with my kids. They’re young, but they can have conversations about basic rights and wrongs of recess behavior. But something was different; he began assailing me, the ground, and screaming “NO!” right back into my face. He was flailing wildly and I was so caught off-guard; I could feel his anger but I also didn’t want him to risk hurting himself or another student. I got him to the bench and felt the wave of energy shift. Like a star collapsing on itself, he briefly suspended all retaliation and went limp in my arms. I loosened my grip and waited for him to cool off, expecting the normal plummet in a student’s hostile behavior once they’ve been separated from the situation that was causing the anxiety.
But then something burst. He screamed and fell to the ground, trying to scrabble through my legs and back to the playground. It felt like he was attempting to escape but I honestly couldn’t figure out from what; part of me felt like he didn’t know either. There I was, clearly capable of out-strengthening him, holding onto a pant leg as he desperately attempted to flee. After what couldn’t have been more than three seconds, I let go and watched as he tore off, sprinting with no regard for his surroundings until he hid himself next to a small tree planted in a secluded corner of the playground. The entire area is fenced in-I knew he wouldn’t be able to leave-but the entire episode felt so spontaneous and powerful, like a lightning bolt, that I couldn’t just let him sit behind the tree, hunched over and holding back tears.
He eventually removed himself from the area and sidled up to me. He didn’t say anything and I was at a loss – until he just wrapped his arms around my leg and pushed his face into my thigh. It was a painful reminder of just how young my students are; how much developing they have left and how much practice they need in explaining what can feel to us like basic thoughts or emotions. But it is also a reminder that despite their youth my kids do feel and there is no amount of culture-building or expectation-holding I can possess that will prevent that.
I later found out that J’s father had been deported right around the time of this incident. It is the second time in a month-and-a-half that one of my boys has had his dad removed from the country.
When I initially sat down to write this post, I had intended on its focus being J’s dad and the fact that my Head Start classroom is funded by our government; the same government that put time and effort into deporting the fathers of my students. I am not going to pretend like I’m well-informed or a knowledgeable viewpoint on immigration or current reform efforts occurring. I don’t think I could pretend to do enough research before writing this post to make an articulate point on it.
All I’m saying is I have two very sad little boys who are both very confused and very upset about the fact that they don’t know where their papi went and are not getting answers as to when they will see him again. I’m really putting time and effort into making them feel loved and welcomed in the room and I actually see E, the other boy, making tremendous progress. But I am curious as to what I can and should offer to a student whose life has been so incredibly altered at a time when they are undergoing immense development.